You may not believe in ghost stories. I don’t either. But once you understand how ghost stories work, you’ll understand how tools of persuasion are used in other realms. Studying the ghost story is a fun way to study the techniques of persuasion.
Animal Kingdom is an Australian movie based on a Melbourne family who wreaked a lot of havoc in the 1980s. This movie was the inspiration for the American TV spin-off set in San Diego. Below I make the case that Animal Kingdom is a modern fairytale.
Breaking Bad is also a modern fairytale blended with crime and heist plot elements. I believe the Animal Kingdom writers modelled this show on Breaking Bad. But I prefer the female characters in Animal Kingdom. Breaking Bad feels like a story made for and about men. Animal Kingdom includes women. The male actors are oftentimes subjected to the female gaze; a sure sign that women as audience have been considered this time.
ANIMAL KINGDOM: THE TITLE
The word ‘Kingdom’ is very fairytale. Here we have a family who consider themselves head honchos of their local area. The world around them is their kingdom, and the spoils are there for their taking. This harks back to the medieval social structure of aristocrats versus serfs, in which aristocrats had everything and serfs owned nothing. They maintained this hierarchy by switching off empathy for others and bald brutality.
FAIRY TALE CHARACTER ARCHETYPES
- Joshua is the poor boy with no mother and no father. Our initial viewpoint character loses his mother to potions (drugs). Many children’s stories in particular use this plot device. A character without a mother is a sympathetic character.
- In English fairy tales, the sympathetic character is often called ‘Jack’ or ‘John’. Jack and the Beanstalk is one of the most famous. In this story, Joshua is shortened to J. This guy is one of the J crew who often stars in fairy tales.
- Smurf is the wicked grandmother — the archetypal witch. Smurf uses what looks like magic, but which is really street smarts and wits, in a complex system of crime few would get away with in reality. The audience must suspend disbelief. Like a wicked witch, Smurf can grant great riches but take them away just as easily. Like a fairy tale witch, she often seems to be doing the prince a favour: In a fairy tale the witch turns a prince into a tree, but perhaps to assuage her own guilt, she grants him the body of a dove for two hours per day. Likewise, Smurf does all the kind, motherly things for her sons, but maintains complete control.
- Smurf lives in a ‘house made of candy’ in the middle of a suburban forest — an opulent gated mansion which attracts hangers-on from all around.
- There’s something eerie about Smurf, as played by Ellen Barkin. She is glamorous in the original, magical sense of the world. In fairytales, as in medieval times, the elderly were treated with great suspicion. Smurf is in transition when it comes to her relationship with her boys; she’s in danger of clicking over from ‘wise and respected’ old person to a nuisance. This comes to the fore in season four. See: Sacrificing One’s Grandmother. This has been foreshadowed with J’s abandonment of the elderly woman with dementia.
- Cody is a Gaelic name, but I believe if there’s any symbolism to Janine Cody’s last name, it’s down to American frontiersman and showman Buffalo Bill Cody (1846-1917).
- In fairy tales — witches and godmothers excepted — girls and women do not have agency. Men rule the world. While the female characters in this show do have some basic agency — Nicky chooses to move in with J. Ordinary women will never be a part of this world. They need some kind of superpower. Smurf the Witch is of course the exception, conforming to the age old rule that in order to have true agency in a story, a female character must be magical. Smurf could take other women under her wing, but instead sees other women as threats rather than allies. If she takes them in, it’s because she’s keeping her enemies closer.
- Ellen Barkin’s character is not entirely fairytale — her character is a more modern take on the witch. Witches in the Grimm era and previously were sexually repulsive, but Smurf uses her sexuality to get what she wants. This power is waning, but only because of her age. Smurf is an intriguing admixture of the sexualised and the grotesque aspects of a witch, who even uses her sexuality to influence her own sons. (This was set up in the pilot, but perhaps it was a bridge too far, because little has been done with this incestuous plot line, yet.)
- The three brothers are the archetypal three brothers from a fairytale.
- One brother, Pope, has been on a big journey (prison) and returns at the beginning of the tale. Though Pope is the eldest of Smurf’s sons, he doesn’t play the role of eldest son and heir to the throne. He has been usurped by Baz, the orphan rescued from drowning in the river.
- The youngest brother, Deren, is gay, which marks him out as not fitting into this macho world. He wants out of the world of magic. He wants to become a woodworker (own a simple pub) and live in the pious world. The problem is, he’s been brought up on crime and has no idea how to live in the law-abiding world, paying taxes and dismissing staff fairly and so on. He can never put aside the fact that he grew up in a house of magic. He doesn’t belong there.
- Another brother, Craig, is the lazy one, interested in getting high and parties and sleeping with women. This is his main fault, and it will be his downfall.
- A fourth ‘brother’, Baz, is Smurf’s favourite, in a way. This brother is not related by blood. Perhaps this means he’s not imbued by the same magic. He soon loses his life. This conforms to a very primitive and conservative idea which runs throughout storytelling — that blood family is your true family. Any outsiders will be punished eventually.
- The new brother (the nephew) eventually becomes the replacement for Baz, the favourite ‘brother’ — favourite because he is more wily than Smurf’s actual sons. J is the ultimate trickster. The complex system of crime Smurf has set up requires a smart person to take over.
- Smurf’s own sons have clearly delineated flaws and each their own demons which make it impossible for them to take on Smurf’s role as she retires. Pope is volatile. Craig is lazy. Deren is conflicted and suspicious and not really invested in a life of crime anyway.
For more on fairy tale character archetypes, see this post.
FAIRY TALE PLOT ELEMENTS
- After his mother overdoses on heroin, J is taken in by his grandmother. He realises he has landed in a cottage in the forest and that his new, extended family is evil. So this is why his mother worked hard to keep him away from them. He immediately faces a moral dilemma: Do I separate myself from these people or do I learn their way of life? He must choose between light and dark, good and evil. This is a stark moral dilemma reminiscent of the black and white nature of fairy tales.
- Sometimes in fairy tales, witches have their powers taken away. This happens to Smurf when she is sent to prison.
- Nicky is the naive, pretty (but not dangerously beautiful) peasant girl who doesn’t fully understand the danger of the outside world. Nicky is abducted by Cody enemies partly because of her own naivety. Nicky plays the part of Little Red Riding Hood, warned of the dangers of other people, constantly refusing to listen. Eventually she finds her world so limited that the only safe place for her is within the walls of the Cody Mansion, and even then she’s vulnerable due to her own naivety.
- Snow White is basically the same character archetype as Little Red Riding Hood — kind and simple and sweet and vulnerable. Nicky finds herself in a Snow White tale, doing the washing and cleaning for the male ‘dwarfs’ around her, who go out to work each day and allow her to stay there out of their own good graces. There are plenty of fairy tales about young women who find themselves cooking and cleaning for large groups of men in the woods — it just so happens that Snow White is the most famous of the subgenre. In season three, when Mia Trujillo infiltrates the Cody Mansion, Snow White has basically been tricked by another kind of witch. (So has J — even more so.) Or, you could see Mia as a classic trickster character. All wicked witches are also tricksters, despite the powers available to them.
- In the “Prey” episode of season three, J and one of his uncles have a problem with a demented tenant. Knowing she’ll soon be questioned by police, J tests her (tests are also common in fairytales) and realises she can’t keep his story straight. So now he has to get rid of her. First the men discuss if they should kill her. No, that is too confronting for them. Instead, the writers borrow from fairy tale logic. They take her far away, dump her at a bus stop, tell her they’re going to bring her a milkshake then drive off, leaving her alone with her beloved cat. This subplot has the story structure of Hansel and Gretel. Gerontricide was a reality in earlier human eras, especially when we were still nomadic.
Animal Kingdom is basically a return to an earlier, more brutal time, and reminds us that our veneer of civility is just that; a veneer. We all have a price.
Listed on IMDb as a comedy drama, The End Of The Fxxxing World is a darkly comic coming-of-age tale with a major crime at the centre of the plot. It is also a twisted and cynical romance. The script is written by Charlie Covell, based on the graphic novel by Charles Forsman. Forsman is an American writer, from Pennsylvania. Covell is a British writer and longtime actress. You may have seen her in Siblings or Peep Show and most recently Marcella.
STORYWORLD OF THE END OF THE FXXXING WORLD
How to adapt an American story for British screen, filmed in Britain?
Jonathan’s idea was always to try and do Americana, British-style. So if you look at the way Lucy Tcherniak and Jonathan both shot it, there are lots of nods to American TV shows, hopefully, and American landscapes. So we were trying to find parts of the UK that didn’t look quintessentially British – we filmed the finale on the Isle of Sheppey, and so hopefully there’s a feeling of expanse like you’d get in the Midwest. I think it was almost trying to do a Fargo-take on Britain, so they move from suburbia to an English version of the Wild West.
Speaking of Americana, the audience is reminded periodically that this is ‘not a Hollywood movie’. Which is true — it’s a limited British TV series. The car isn’t going to blow up because it’s not a movie. Then it blows up. Both characters are informed by media they have consumed over the course of their lives. Alyssa’s behaviour is explained by her enthusiasm to watch the porn channel in the hotel room. She has no doubt been exposed to a lot of that. She’s seen a lot of crime shows (haven’t we all), and she calls upon her knowledge of crime fiction when deciding to clean the house after their murder. This gets around something all writers wrestle with — how to stop characters sounding like they’ve got their dialogue straight out of someone else’s crime fiction? One workaround, used here and also used in Thelma and Louise, is to acknowledge the fact that your new-to-the-life criminals probably did get their dialogue from elsewhere. Thelma repeats the souped up show-off dialogue of Brad Pitt’s character. Alyssa finds rubber gloves and bleach.
When Alyssa smashes her phone, this solves a big problem for contemporary writers, telling tales about people who would normally be fully contactable. This is fully in keeping with Alyssa’s character so it works. “I’m so glad I smashed my phone,” she says, later, reminding us that no one can easily find them. When we take technology away from our characters, the story immediately has a retro feel. This one feels almost like the 1970s or 1980s, especially with the style of Alyssa’s father’s jacket, and even the architecture of the house they break into.
The big question introduced in the pilot: Will James really murder Alyssa? If so, how? This question sustains the entire series.
The voice over technique affords novelistic advantages as we hear the thoughts of Alyssa and James, juxtaposed against how they are acting and what they are saying. Watching The End Of The Fxxxing World is like reading a novel which alternates point of view after each chapter. A film which uses a similar technique is About A Boy, also British. Sure enough, both The End Of The Fxxxing World and About A Boy are based on books which alternate points of view.
In line with the ‘Americana’ aims, The End Of The Fxxxing World is basically a Thelma and Louise plot with young adult main characters.
- Two characters go on a road trip, each of them hoping to have some kind of fun. One of them in particular just wants something to change — anything. She needs some kind of awakening.
- Both Thelma and Alyssa are escaping domestic violence.
- An initial rape scene ends with the other killing the rapist, who has raped many times before.
- This is just the first crime in a series of others.
- There are stops in cheap hotels, and other characters along the way, who they foil.
- The characters they meet are stereotypes, which make our heroes seem more human.
- One of the cops on their trail feels great empathy for them, engendering empathy from the audience, too.
- After their last big crime, Alyssa, like Thelma, declares that she’s never felt so alive, or more like herself. She’s finally found out who she really is.
- The pair look set to ‘drive off a cliff together’ (try to motorboat across the channel with no supplies and no fresh water), though that would’ve been too faithful to Thelma and Louise, so they change it a bit.
People who have seen Bonnie and Clyde have said this is the millennial version of Bonnie and Clyde.
Road trip movies take the shape of mythic stories. These stories can feel episodic (and therefore lose narrative drive) because of all the different settings and characters encountered along the way. Modern audiences don’t have much time for episodic stories. So modern storytellers have to find ways to make their threads interweave. In Thelma and Louise, the Brad Pitt character keeps cropping up, for instance. In The End of the Fxxxing World:
- Alyssa and James’s parents have never met, but they are eventually filmed sitting side by side on the couch. These characters come together rather than drift apart, lending cohesion.
- There is plenty of conflict between Alyssa and James themselves. They spend part of the story each on their own. When they come back together, more cohesion.
- It’s critical to have a definite end goal, even if they end up off track. This end goal has to be established early. (Alyssa’s father’s place.)
- There is a parallel journey going on — in this series it is the cop duo, tracking them. Because they’re following the same mirrored journey, this gives narrative cohesion.
We therefore don’t mind that Alyssa and James briefly meet a number of temporary characters and spend every night somewhere else.
For another Road Trip story see my analysis of Little Miss Sunshine.
The writers of The End Of The Fxxxing World use a trick employed by Cormac McCarthy in No Country For Old Men. In this case not one but two unsympathetic characters are introduced. The girl is annoying but the boy is portrayed as psychopathic. Terrible though these people are, they suddenly seem relatively normal once they happen to break into the home of a serial murderer. Likewise, Walter White seems benign when compared to the experienced drug lord running Albuquerque.
Alyssa is not initially a likeable character, but she is is constantly fascinating. Like Lady Bird, she is far from perfect but she knows what she wants. She wants an adventure. She’s going to get her adventure even if she destroys her life in the process. (Alyssa is a more extreme version of Lady Bird of Greta Gerwig’s film.) Alyssa is a Thelma-character in some ways, but a Louise in others. By the end of the story she is a young Louise — we know she’ll be cynical and world wise now that she’s even seen through her Dad.
The character arc of James is imbued with comic darkness — he thinks he’s a psychopath. It turns out he’s not — his deadness inside has been a defence mechanism, which started the day he witnessed his mother drive into the pond. Through his relationship with the gregarious, assertive Alyssa, he learns that he is capable of feeling things after all. Tragically for him, he learns this lesson the moment he dies.
This series inverts a number of gender tropes.
- When female characters break free they are very often required to sacrifice their lives the moment they achieve their aim, failing to break free at all. Thelma and Louise is a classic example of this. It’s so common it’s problematic, genderwise. Plenty of men are sacrificed in movies too, but not in this way. But this time James dies in a typically feminine way.
- The cops are both women.
- At the petrol station it’s a woman boss who is mistreating a male underling working in customer service, and who tries to play the hero by apprehending Alyssa.
- Because Alyssa is so nihilistic in her own right, the show avoids turning her into some Manic Pixie Dream Girl.
In other ways, gender norms are not subverted. A disproportionate number of the male characters are perverts. James winds up sacrificing himself for a girl. Alyssa’s father is a stereotypical useless, uninvolved manchild.
The female cop duo are not in the original comic. One character has been split into two. This is interesting because in most paper to screen adaptations, characters are culled, not added. There is no romantic subplot for the cops in the comic. Their story mirrors the story of Alyssa and James, in a way. Neither is sure they really want to be with the other, but they are each drawn to the other anyhow, in a constant push and pull. The antagonistic relationship between the cops allows for dialogue about the themes: How much empathy and leniency do these kids deserve? Are they still kids?
James’s plan to kill Alyssa comes to an end after a few episodes. To be honest, this almost turned me off watching it. I don’t think I’d have continued had this plan continued longer. But when his plan is changed, he no longer has any plan at all. He’s basically a stunned mullet. It is Alyssa who comes up with all the plans from there on in. This is fairly common in a story with two main characters — one of them makes all the plans, the other goes along with them.
Alyssa’s father Leslie is a comical character — a tragic hippie trope. Portrayed as pretty dim, the joke at the end is that he’s not as dim as we thought he was — he knows enough to call the cops and get reward money. Jeff Kinney use’s Greg Heffley’s older brother in a similar way, setting him up as stupid, then rewarding the audience with the occasional ironic lightbulb moment where he seems pretty genius. Alyssa’s father is soon brought down again, because Alyssa is smarter by a long shot.
Kath and Kim is a satirical Australian comedy series created by Jane Turner and Gina Riley, which aired 2002, 2003, 2004 and 2007. There are a couple of movies, too.
Kath and Kim was remade in America but failed to achieve popularity. Kath and Kim is a specifically (pacifically) Australian series, though enjoyed equally in New Zealand, and not just because Kiwis like to see Aussies making fun of themselves! (It’s because New Zealanders recognise the same characters.)
What can comedy writers learn from Kath and Kim? Below I take a look at the humour of Kath and Kim taking cues from the taxonomy of humour proposed by the creator of The Onion.
Any difference between expectation and outcome
Satire is the comedy of beliefs, especially those on which an entire society is based. Satire and irony are not the same, but they commonly go together. (For more on satire, see my post on irony. For the difference between satire, farce and parody, Quora has a good answer on that.)
All of the Courage The Cowardly Dog episodes including Doctor Le Quack are set in a place called Nowhere. “Be quiet, Eustace,” says Muriel one morning, “you’ll wake the neighbours!”
This setting is perfect for western spoofs. Many of the Courage stories are horror spoofs but in Dr Le Quack we have the cartoon, child-friendly version of a wild western caper film.
GENRE OF DOCTOR LE QUACK
A caper story is a story in which the main characters pull off some kind of heist. (Also called a heist story.) A caper is a comic crime story. So, caper = crime + comedy.
The caper, also known as the heist film, is among the tightest and most focused of forms, built on a specific and high-speed desire line. That’s why caper stories are almost always very popular.
The caper is one of the most plot-heavy of all genres, right up there with detective stories and thrillers, and is designed to fool not only the opponent in the story but also the audience. The prime technique of the caper writer is trickery. Like a magician, you point the audience’s attention in one direction while the real action is happening somewhere else.
In heist stories (farce and caper), the mechanical plot is taken to such an extreme that the plots have the complexity and timing of a Swiss watch, and no character at all.
— John Truby
Breaking Bad makes use of caper elements e.g. At the beginning of season five when Walt and Jesse rig up an explosion to wipe out an incriminating laptop in police storage, and earlier in the seasons when they steal the chemicals from the factory wearing woollen hats with pompoms.
Western Symbolism In Doctor Le Quack
Western symbolism can be seen in many of the Courage stories. Here we have the story opening with the rising sun at dawn. While this is not specific to the western genre, the sun has symbolic meaning in a western. Though it has been used countless times in western movies and novels, readers never seem to tire of the age-old symbol of the sun setting on the cowboy riding or walking off into the sunset. Quite a few picturebooks end with characters walking off into the sunset, too. Here we have dawn breaking over the desolate plain.
The sun can be a symbol of giving or taking life, depending on how it’s portrayed. The sun can break through and show brighter days, or it can be boiling hot and deadly if lost in the desert. Here, I don’t think it has any specific symbolic meaning. Along with the soundtrack and the big skies it is simply meant to convey the atmosphere of an old western film.
However, a rising sun in a story does indicate that this is going to be one eventful day, and that the events will conclude by the end of it.
STORY STRUCTURE OF DOCTOR LE QUACK
WEAKNESS/NEED IN DOCTOR LE QUACK
Courage is cowardly. Nonetheless, he needs to save the day.
DESIRE IN DOCTOR LE QUACK
After Eustace accidentally hits Muriel on the head with a plank of wood Muriel loses her memory. Eustace takes this opportunity to get rid of the dog.
Amnesia comes easy in fiction. It is also conveniently specific. A taste of Applied Phlebotinum, a particularly shocking traumatic event, or even a simple Tap on the Head will be sufficient to make your character forget all about who or what they are.
— TV Tropes
He wants to get back into the house and do something for Muriel.
OPPONENT OF DOCTOR LE QUACK
Eustace is the first opponent but soon another comes along in the form of an evil French duck. As with the cajun fox last episode, this duck isn’t really French — he slaps on a French moustache which falls off later right before the main battle. I think the producers might do this because the same voice actor mimics a variety of different accents in parodic rather than realistic fashion.
First we see Le Duck’s lair. This is a Scrooge McDuck character, which of course comes from Dickens. His riches do not make him happy. He is collecting riches simply for the game of it, leaving bags of money just sitting around. He hasn’t even replaced his office chair, which looks as if it’s got a big bite out of it. This is a purely evil character motivated by power.
Then we see who is sitting on the other end of the computer.
PLAN IN DOCTOR LE QUACK
Courage has already gotten back into the house by first trying to swing in Tarzan style from a tree, then with a pole vault.
Eventually he gets in and via the Internet enlists the help of a doctor. Even the computer is anthropomorphised and has an evil personality of its own. These were the days when viewers were using the Internet for the first time and there was more mistrust than there is today.
Plans change when it becomes apparent that the visiting doctor meant to help Muriel is actually a quack who wants to raid the silverware drawer.
The duck’s plan is to
- Knock Eustace on the head so he’s out for a while
- Torture Muriel until she reveals where her piggybank is. He can’t find any treasure in the house.
This is where the heist spoof comes in. The duck sets up a toy train track and binds Muriel up in rope reminiscent of a scene in which a beautiful young woman is tied to the train tracks. Instead of using this quite sexualised trope, the writers of this children’s story modify it quite a bit — Muriel sits on a chair nearby and the toy train throws pies in her face.
This familiar scenario [chained to a railway] first appeared in the 1867 short story “Captain Tom’s Fright“, although a more rudimentary form of it was seen on stage in 1863 in the play The Engineer. However, it really entered the meme pool as a result of its inclusion in the 1867 play Under the Gaslight, by Augustin Daly. […] As bizarre (and horrible) as it may seem, this trope is Truth in Television. At least six people in the United States were killed between 1874 and 1910 as a result of being tied to railroad tracks.
— TV Tropes
The same trope is also used in games such as Red Dead Redemption.
Courage blows him up. When opponents are destroyed by Courage in this series it’s common for the opponent to say something understated like, “How annoying.” That’s what happens here. This feels a little meta. Why would the duck panic about being blown up? He’s a cartoon character who will bounce back to life before the next scene.
When this doesn’t work the duck disgusts her by holding a plate of smelly cheese right under her nose.
Next we see a huge, muscled rat with tats appear in the doorway. It first seems that he has been attracted by the cheese, but when Courage pays him off we see that this has been Courage’s plan all along. The common sequencing in this story is that something happens, we worry about Courage, then we see he planned it.
BATTLE IN DOCTOR LE QUACK
The final battle involves a vacuum cleaner. The duck tries to suck Courage up. But instead he sucks up all the planks nailed across the doorway and the whole thing blows up in a huge explosion, reminiscent of the explosions often used in train heist stories to wreck parts of a railway line.
The policemen Courage has tried to summon turn up at this point and stomp all over Courage to get to the duck.
SELF-REVELATION IN DOCTOR LE QUACK
We learn that this duck is a wanted criminal.
NEW EQUILIBRIUM IN DOCTOR LE QUACK
We think the duck is going to prison. “We’ve been looking for you!” say the policemen.
But the duck breaks free — we get a flash scene reminiscent of something out of No Country For Old Men — and says to the camera that we haven’t seen the last of him yet.
At first I wondered if the title “The Shadow Of Courage” were a riff on The Red Badge Of Courage but no — apart from the grammatical structure and perhaps some of the themes (of bravery vs cowardice) this plot line borrows little from the classic American novel.
Shadows who disentangle themselves from their bodies are a staple of horror, and especially, perhaps, of camp horror comedy.
STORYWORLD OF “SHADOW OF COURAGE”
Freaks and Geeks is a coming-of-age drama made in the late 1990s, set in 1980. Though it was cancelled after one season, that’s not because it wasn’t good. Perhaps the audience assumed this was yet another high school drama done badly. This show did a lot of stuff you’ll have seen before, but did it extraordinarily well.
Genre Blend Of Freaks And Geeks
Freaks and Geeks is a:
This category of story is about the eternal adolescent quest to find out which version of yourself is the “true” one.
How This Show Is Different From Other High School Dramas
It doesn’t fall into the category of ‘cringe comedy’ even though teenagehood inevitably includes embarrassing scenes.
The creators were determined not to end each show with a typical “happy ending”. One notable exception is the pilot episode, which the creators purposely wrote as a self-contained story, in case the show was never picked up for production. This is also why you see a fully fleshed story in the pilot episode and why I’ve chosen to break it down as a story unto itself.
There is plenty of crossover between quite vastly different social arenas, with a main character weaving between all of them. (Though all the families are white.) Most high school dramas have set-in-stone cliques before the audience meets the characters, and the main character is usually an underdog, or a newcomer trying to work out which group to fit into (e.g. Mean Girls). Lindsay is more interesting than that, because although she’s not new to the school but she’s trying to actively switch groups.
Storyworld of Freaks and Geeks
- Fictional William McKinley High School during the 1980–1981 school year in the town of Chippewa, Michigan, a fictional suburb of Detroit
- A middle-class suburban home near the school
- The surrounding neighbourhood, including some rougher parts of town
- The bleachers are a good place to hide under, to do things teachers can’t see.
- The corridors can be either a walk of shame or a place to parade down. Lockers lining corridors also provide opportunity for characters who hate each other to get together, since lockers are assigned from above.
- The guidance counsellor’s room is a place for moral questions to be posed and discussed.
- Upper middle class (Neal) middle class (Lindsay and Sam) meets working class (Bill) meets military class (Nick) meets houseos (Kim).
- The high school is a miniature battle field, where the mottos are about conquer or lose and men must be men. The school cafeteria is a good venue for enemies to be thrown together by force, as everyone has to eat lunch. Classrooms are good venues for characters to be bullied and victimised in front of a small audience.
- The suburbs are cosy at first glance, with their manicured lawns and a 1980s apparent utopia, but dangers lurk around the corner, where you could meet your high school adversary at any time.
Related: Why Do We Love Grimdark TV? from Bitch Magazine
Since so much horribleness goes on in the real world, I’ve reached the age where I have no time for stories about men whose motivations are spurred by the torture and murder of women. I can enjoy a good crime series, but if the crime is going to be against women, I want to see a certain amount of female agency. Sometimes this agency comes from the victim/survivor herself; at other times the focus is on the women who work to solve the crimes.
In my middle age I am sick to death of stories such as True Detective, hailed as ‘dark masterpieces’ which are about the way men deal with the rapes and gruesome murders of women in their jobs, and with the nagging, unreasonable, one-dimensional wives and girlfriends in their real lives. Even a great show such as Breaking Bad unwittingly, I believe, turns female characters into annoying, nagging sidekicks. (Vince Gilligan blamed the audience for hating Skyler; after watching that series three times I’m now sure there are things he could have done, or rather plot points he could have avoided, to make the female characters more empathetic, if that’s what he’d been going for.)
Crime writers who base their plots around the murder, rape and mutilation of female bodies need to be especially careful to go out of their way to present live women as rounded individuals. FFS, it should be part of the damn contract.
The following shows are not about the murder and rape of middle aged men. Far from it. There’s still that uncomfortable link between sex and violence in here, and crime drama isn’t for everyone.
If, like me, you would like to enjoy the suspense of a good crime show but you’d only sit through slightly more female-friendly crime, here are three series for your consideration.
THE FALL (Belfast)
A lot has been said about The Fall, which is what made me watch it in the first place.
The Fall: The Most Feminist Show on Television from The Atlantic
This is a story comprising two short series, both available now on American Netflix. Gillian Anderson plays the SIO (Senior Investigation Officer) looking for a serial killer of women. From the start, the audience knows who the serial killer is. He is not the serial killer of the popular imagination. Gillian Anderson’s character has some great lines, which show she isn’t wearing the rose-tinted glasses; she knows sexism when she sees it and she calls it out. This is immensely satisfying. Needless to say, I really enjoyed it. Continue reading “Are Crime Shows Becoming Less Sexist?”
Vince Gilligan, creator of Breaking Bad, said in defence of Skyler that if his audience sides with Walt, that’s on them. Not so fast. A large proportion of any audience is always misogynistic and that will affect their judgement of fictional characters. I was even sharing a doctor’s waiting room with a middle-aged white man who said with venom that Walt should have killed her.
But with Breaking Bad, hatred for Skyler White is also in the writing.
When a character in fiction is required to do something very bad – something which any reasonable person would find morally reprehensible – and if the audience is required to empathise with that character (due to spending an entire series with them, say), then it’s necessary in the set-up for the audience to understand the reasons for the character’s actions. The audience must empathise, or else everything feels pointless.
Walter White is one such protagonist. An ordinary guy starts cooking up meth for money. Yet we side with him.
For starters, he looks like the actual human incarnation of Ned Flanders. ie Mr Harmless-And-Well-Meaning. (Walt has none of the annoying personality traits of Ned Flanders, which would turn him into an unsympathetic caricature.) Even Mr White’s name is allegorical: bland and ordinary and reasonably common. Even the W-alliteration of ‘Walt White’ is ever so slightly comical and emasculating.
What makes us take Walt’s side?
The Whites have a disabled but smart-mouthed teenage son and a new baby on the way. In other words, Walt has more than himself to worry about. It’s easier to identify with unselfish characters than selfish ones.
Walter’s brother-in-law is a good contrast because, unlike Walt, who would be happy with the simple things in life, the brother-in-law is a police officer who craves action and excitement. He is not compassionate. He takes Walter along to a drug raid to ‘get some excitement in his life’ but unlike Walter, who sits in the back seat with an emasculating white bullet-proof vest over top of his jersey and a worried look on his face, the brother-in-law is hopped up on adrenaline at the thought of catching crooks. The brother-in-law and his police partner even make bets on the nationality of the criminals. For them, drug busts are a game. They don’t seem to look any further than that. In contrast, Walt thinks things through intelligently, and the audience is guided through his thought processes.
On the morning of Walt’s fiftieth birthday, his wife dishes up vege bacon. Walt’s fiftieth is not cause for celebration so much as reason to watch his health. Walt doesn’t complain about the bacon. He understands that he is being looked after.
The son, in contrast, is vocal about it, complaining that it ‘smells like band-aids’. He then makes a wisecrack about his father’s age. The audience empathises with Walt because all of us worry about getting older (if we’re lucky enough to ever get old) and all of us feel we should be looking after our cholesterol (or something – there’s always something).
Walt is a high school chemistry teacher, demeaning because of the poor pay – and although he knows his subject matter very well, he is jaded after many years of uninterested, disrespectful students. The shot of the bunsen burner flame licking Walt’s face as Walt drones on to the class is symbolic of his later demise. The audience watches this scene rather than listening to what Walt says about the importance of chemistry; the fact is, Walt is not an engaging teacher. He has somehow ended up in the wrong profession. Walt does care about his students. This redeems him. In fiction, teacher characters can be in the wrong job and yet retain empathy with their audience, but they must basically care. (Mr Holland’s Opus springs to mind.) Many empathetic characters are in the wrong job. (Peter Gibbons from Office Space, Elaine from Seinfeld – constantly – not to mention many people in real life who wonder what it would be like to have chosen a different job.)
Poor teacher remuneration, and a wife who spends too much time on eBay, mean that Walt must wash cars to supplement the family income. He suffers humiliation after two of his disrespectful senior students witness him polishing the tyres of another student’s expensive car. When the girl takes a picture of him on her phone, we suspect she’ll send it round the entire school, or upload it to the internet. We know Walt’s humiliation won’t stop there. (Not like the good old days.) Humiliation elicits strong reactions in both the sufferer and onlookers, so even when a fictional character suffers a humiliation, the audience cringes in empathy.
Walt’s ordinary life and ordinary expectations are apparent when his idea of a pleasant birthday weekend is to take a drive to see an exhibition of photos from Mars. We also understand from this scene that Walt has a genuine interest in science. We suspect (and later find out) that he is very good at his (science) work. The audience can easily respect someone who is intelligent.
Walt’s wife is inclined to puts the screws on. I suspect many men would empathise. Skyler White displays many unreasonable expectations – common to wives in fiction – that enable audience empathy with the husband.
For example, Skyler chides Walt for being late home, even though he wasn’t expecting the surprise party. (How many times have you seen a fictional wife scrape a perfectly good – microwaveable – meal scraped into a rubbish bin?)
Unlike Skyler, the audience was there with Walt when the boss wheedled him into staying on at work after five. Next, Skyler gently but surely puts the screws on about painting the baby’s bedroom. (Room-painting seems to be a common source of antenatal angst in fiction – I’m thinking Juno now.) She’d do it herself except he ‘doesn’t want her standing on ladders’. This low level guilt-trip takes place in bed, and then she wonders why he’s not aroused. Skyler makes a thing of this. Another common trope: Lack of sexual arousal* is linked with general hopelessness, marital difficulties and loss of masculine purpose in life. (This situation is reversed in the final scene of the pilot episode to symbolise a reincarnation of sorts.)
*Is it just me, or is this trope used far more frequently with male characters than with female characters? Even in modern stories, lack of sexual motivation is not commonly utilised as a symbol for hopelessness and malaise in women.
But Walt does not feel sorry for himself even when things are bad. He collapses at work and taken away by ambulance, but still wants the medic to let him out on the corner. He doesn’t have good health insurance. Many could relate to this feeling, I’m sure. For those without good insurance, the prospect of getting an ambulance bill is almost as scary as the illness itself.
Then the kicker: Walt White is diagnosed with lung cancer, even though he’s never smoked in his life. We all know people who smoke like chimneys and live til a ripe old age. But Walt has just two years to live. This now seems the ultimate unfairness, and marks the turning point. Whatever Walt is about to do, the audience can now accept. We’re with Walt all the way as the straight guy ‘breaks bad’.
Will he tell his wife?
So many storylines would be stymied, if people only talked to their spouses. But no. The audience knows that Walt can’t tell his pregnant wife. In fiction as in real life, there is never a good time to break bad news. When Walt gets home, Skyler is on the phone with a credit company. They are in financial difficulty, as usual:
Skyler to Walt: Did you use the mastercard last month? Ah, fifteen eighty-eight at Staples?
Walt: Um, oh we needed printer paper. (It’s not like Walt is careless and extravagant with his money – this is a guy doing his genuine best, yet still, ends don’t meet.)
Skyler: Well the mastercard’s the one we don’t use. (Slightly patronising tone.) So, how was your day?
Walt: Oh. Fine. (The words themselves don’t do justice to this perfectly judged bit of acting from Bryan Cranston.)
Although Skyler’s eBay habit and her constant wheedling expose weak character flaws, it is also important that the audience empathises with her. And I do. How was this bit of storytelling engineering achieved?
Enter the sister.
Evil sisters are oft-used in fiction to highlight the good points in another woman. Skyler’s sister, Marie, is unpleasant in a low-grade but constant way. She is in competition with Skyler. Marie does not take pleasure in any of Skyler’s happiness (the baby) or success (the writing hobby). When Skyler says she’s writing a collection of short stories, Marie asks why she isn’t writing a novel. (Short story collections ‘don’t sell’ – another unwelcome reminder that the Whites are short on money.) Yet Skyler accepts her sister’s bitchiness, refusing to take the bait. This trait in a character almost always engenders empathy. Thus, as Walt highlights Skyler’s less attractive traits, the sister highlights her best points. Now we have a deftly portrayed, rounded female character in Skyler. We want the best for her.
And Walt’s multi-layered reasons for breaking bad have now been set up. So he gets on with the job of cooking up some meth. But even when Walt engages in something morally reprehensible, he demonstrates good basic principles when negotiating with his partner in crime, ex-student Jesse Pinkman:
“You and I will not make garbage. We will produce a chemically pure and stable product that performs as advertised.”
Endearingly, and ironically – given the actual danger – Walt will also set up an emergency eye-wash station, and wants them each to wear protective coats. He knows nothing about the criminal world, and thinks they just can rent one of those self-storage sheds. (The police are onto that, apparently, so they buy a Winnebago.) So Walter is a hapless criminal, which endears him to a largely non-criminal audience. How many of us would know where to start, if we suddenly decided to take to the underworld?
Walt’s incompetence is demonstrated later in the episode as we watch him trying to douse a rapidly spreading grass fire with a single lab apron, and later again when he can’t even manage to shoot himself with the gun. (I’m reminded of Llewelyn Moss of No Country For Old Men. Moss is another small time crook who engenders empathy by getting in trouble with criminals far harder than himself.)
When an ordinary guy turns bad, it is appropriate that heavy/dangerous/violent scenes are interspersed with lighter ones. In Breaking Bad the musical score lightens up and the audience is encouraged to take some scenes less seriously than others. This is a little heavy handed for my taste.
The ultimate in relief comes at the end of the pilot episode, just as we realise (along with Walt) that it’s not the cops who are after him – it’s simply a cavalcade of fire engines, and they’re screaming right past him as he stands on the side of the road in nothing but underpants and shirt. The engines are off to put out that fire he made.
This comical scene happens right after a scene of heightened tension, when Walt tries to kill himself (and fails). When we realise there is no imminent danger, we are almost as relieved as Walter himself.
Yet when we first met Walter, we saw a crazy man in a gas mask driving a Winnebago with dead bodies in the back. He could have been a psychopathic mass murderer, and all those movies about psychopathic mass murderers have primed us to think he might be. But the pilot episode of Breaking Bad makes use of the bookends structural technique, and now we’re back to the opening scene. This time, though, we’re on the side of the drug cook.
For me, the writers/actors/directors of Breaking Bad achieved character empathy in Walter White. And what a stunning example it is too. I never thought I’d be rooting for a meth cook.
- The Neurochemistry Of Empathy, Brain Pickings
- Do Children Need To Be Taught Empathy? (a YouTube link)
- The Walking Dead, mirror neurons, and empathy from GamaSutra
- Vince Gilligan And The Dark Comedy Of Breaking Bad from SplitSider
- Breaking Bad Season 5 from Slate
- 20 Breaking Bad Locations In Real Life from Twisted Sifter
- The Real Walter White (is a woman) from Salon
- Breaking Bad Periodic Table Print on Kickstarter
- Breaking Bad With A Crotch Grab, an essay from The Good Men Project about why men do that and what it might mean.
- The blue meth on Breaking Bad is rock candy.
- So, You’re Looking To Break Into The Meth Business: A Guide from Thought Catalog
- ‘Mythbusters’ tests some stuff off Breaking Bad.
- Do you find Skyler annoying? I think she’s remarkably calm and reasonable given the circumstances, but I know people who can’t stand her… all the while rooting for the meth cooks. Why is that?
- Breaking Bad Fan Art, a Tumblr blog
- Character Empathy In The Breaking Bad Pilot, by me, ages ago. The day I fell in love.
- I Hate Walter White from Salon
- A cat dressed as Walt White from BF. It really does look like him
- Breaking Bad Plush Toys, because you know, this show just screams ‘Plush’, from Laughing Squid
- Also at Laughing Squid, a video which depicts Breaking Bad so far as an 80s style computer game
- And a recap on the first 5 seasons in time for the second half of the fifth and final
- Your complete creative guide to Breaking Bad from Co.Create
- Literary References In Breaking Bad from Zola
- An article on Breaking Bad and American Ambition from The Nervous Breakdown
- Like on Mad Men, the colours of the characters’ clothing are symbolic. Here’s an infographic from Slate.
- And here’s one I really don’t want to read because I know she’s right. It’s about the lack of believable female characters in Breaking Bad.
- A Modern Antihero’s Journey: The Goddess and Temptress in ‘Breaking Bad’ from Bitch Flicks kind of redeems this series a bit when it comes to its female characters. I have always thought that Skyler is a strong character.
- Skyler White Is The Best Character On Breaking Bad, from Slate
- And this, THIS, is a well articulated version of how I feel about Skyler of Breaking Bad, from Feministing.
- ‘Breaking Bad’ and the Power of Women: Skyler, Lydia and Marie Take Control from Bitch Flicks shows that lots of women have been thinking about this.
- The jury is still out on whether this is science fiction or not from io9
- Breaking Bad Happened In Real Life. It also happened in New Zealand, when I was teaching at a nearby high school. (He was actually making ecstasy, but same kinda thing.)
- Let’s Stop Talking About Anna Gunn’s Weight, And Watch Her Play Skyler On Breaking Bad, Instead from Blisstree
- Breaking Bad Locations in Real Life: Screen Shots Juxtaposed Over the Actual Spots Where They Took Place from Visual News
- The Real Walter White (from Alabama)
- 10 Years On — reflections from the actors and creators
**CONTAINS ALL THE SPOILERS**
Stranger Things is a Netflix series created by the brilliantly named ‘Duffer Brothers’, out this year but set in 1983. Though I suspect strong ‘recency bias’, season one scores a very high 9.2 on IMDb.
The show feels like a mixture of Twin Peaks (with the missing kids and small community), Freaks and Geeks (with the three nerdy boys playing Dungeons and Dragons and the older sister trying to find her place in the cool group), something done by Stephen King, and Minority Report (with its sensory deprivation bath and freaky magic-genius girl).
The show also feels a bit like the computer games Don’t Starve and Minecraft, with its own version of the Nether (“The Upside Down”).